Homeowners looking to save money on their energy bills have a host of options today, from utility programs to efficient appliances and smart devices. But according to a residential energy management company, there are more phantom loads and wasted electricity than ever before.
"There is a long list of random things where energy is being wasted," Sense CEO Mike Phillips told Utility Dive. "And it's not five — it's 1,000. From the hot tub with a bad cover, to the old TV in the basement," Phillips said.
Sense has developed an energy monitor that can provide homeowners with real-time analysis of their energy use while serving up a range of other use cases, from home monitoring to identifying faulty appliances. The savings, according the company, can be larger than you might expect.
Sense has more than 10,000 of its monitoring devices in the field, and leveraged that base in 2018 to survey and study 4,000 households about their energy use.
Sense's research showed "always-on" energy used by many devices consumes almost a quarter of home energy. But even though these loads account for 23% of energy usage, they are "unnoticed by most homeowners," according to Sense, and cost nearly $41 billon annually.
"We think it's fairly reasonable to be able to cut that in half," Phillips said. He estimates Sense customers could reduce energy usage 10% to 12%, just by finding and eliminating always-on loads.
Alongside those potential savings, consider recent data from Crescent Electric Supply Co. (CESCO), which estimated smart thermostats can save 24.5% on consumers' electric bills — sufficient to make the investment pay for itself in short order.
While many utilities offer rebates and installation on smart thermostats, CESCO's research concluded that even if a consumer paid the full amount for a smart thermostat and paid to have it professionally installed, the payback time for the investment is still only two to four years.
"These devices can be some of the biggest savers," Alex Lucas, a researcher at CESCO, told Utility Dive. "HVAC electricity usage makes up a significant portion of American's electric bills," but more and more devices are coming to the market each year which can help consumers save, he said.
If the energy savings seem high, past research backs up the potential. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, next-generation savings programs along with deep retrofits could slash energy consumption in some homes by 50%.
The key for Sense, which wants to grow its business and customer base, is how to get its energy analytics system into more homes — when right now, the company's model is based around direct-to-customer and third-party sales of a monitoring device.
How Sense works
Though Sense recommends a certified electrician install the device, a how-to video online is simple and CEO Phillips says many customers ultimately do it themselves.
It works like this: The monitoring device clamps around the two main service breakers in a home's electric panel, on the customer side of the meter. The monitors connect to the Sense device, which does the hard disaggregation work, and connects that device to the cloud via a WiFi connection. The customer can then access information about their energy usage through a smartphone app, though the system can take a little time to identify discrete energy uses.
The upside to a monitoring system like this is real-time access to information, said Phillips. It's what allows Sense to be used for a variety of use-cases, like figuring out if the kids are home, or if the sump pump isn't working. The use cases go beyond energy efficiency, because Sense gives visibility into what is happening in the home in real time.
The use of real-time energy data is also what allows Sense to avoid competing directly with companies like Bidgely and Nest, which offer energy disaggregation and home monitoring services, respectively.
"We drive consumer engagement based not just on the energy part," said Phillips. "It does get boring after a while, once you know how much power your AC uses."
But instead of seeing use drop off, Phillips said consumers open the Sense app about once every two days.
"This real-time aspect ... is compelling in a way you might not have predicted," said Phillips. "Our engagement numbers are great," he added, because the app allows homeowners to be "in the home" even when they are not.
How Sense plans to grow
Sense launched in 2013 and released its first product in 2016, but in the last couple of years has inked agreements that signal growth.
In January, the company announced a partnership with smart meter manufacturer Landis+Gyr, to include Sense energy management capabilities in its hardware. That could make Sense an option for utilities looking to install advanced metering infrastructure in their territory in the future.
George Zavaliagkos, vice president of technology at Sense, said the meter "becomes like an iPhone, running energy applications, and Sense is one app, doing disaggregation."
The partnership with Landis+Gyr is vital to Sense's plans to transform itself, company leaders said.
"Where we're heading with Landis+Gyr, this can be a set of software services that run on the platform, and then the business model becomes much more flexible. We'd get paid ongoing fees," said Phillips. Rather than selling hardware, the company's management platform could be used by utility demand management programs.
"The opportunities for energy efficiency are much broader than what utilities are looking at," said Phillips, as potential savings through traditional energy-saving measures diminish.
"Identifying always-on loads, finding them and shutting them off, is the easiest way to save energy," said Zavaliagkos.
Looking to how utilities may use the Sense platform in the future, the pair pointed to demand response as an important resource for utilities looking to support more renewables, EVs and heating electrification.
"We think the existing demand response programs are kind of a crude way to do that," said Phillips. "We think the long-term view is this should all be done through automation where consumers interact with apps like ourselves."